Imagine strolling down a public street when, suddenly, you’re hit with an intense aroma of cannabis. You look around, but there is no one in sight. Confused? So are the many cannabis smokers in Israel where this hypothetical scenario is becoming a common reality.
The culprit is not an incognito toker or a skunk hiding in the bushes. Instead, it is the bushes themselves, or—more accurately—a peculiar purple flower that is being purposefully planted in cities across the country.
Plectranthus neochilus is a small, unassuming, perennial purple flower that lightly resembles lavender. Bonus: bees love it. It is one of about 350 species of plectranthus, a warm-climate plant native to the southern hemisphere, and is best recognized by its strong, pungent odor. Some sister species are described as having an “oregano” scent, and while that certainly has some mild merit, cannabis connoisseurs smell something much, much different when the plant is nearby.
A Familiar Scent In Israeli Cannabis Culture
In 2015, the Israeli online publication, Cannabis, published an article about the pungent plant, where they quoted an anonymous surfer retelling that upon smelling the aroma of weed, he did a 360-degree field scan only to find nothing more than “these disappointing purple flowers.”
The smell is so convincing that it has become a topic of much conversation and joking among the cannabis crowd in Israel. I personally discovered the plant after a friend asked if I had noticed them—I picked up on the distinct smell of weed while walking through Tel Aviv, but (like many) I assumed it was actual cannabis.
Despite cannabis being illegal, this was not an outrageous conclusion since the culture is quite widespread in Israel. Israeli citizens in liberal cities like Tel Aviv do not harbor the same concerns that many in U.S. prohibition states do; consumption is frequent, and attitudes are relaxed. It could even be likened to the conditions in decriminalized cities, such as Philadelphia, rather than prohibition states, such as New Jersey. This fluctuates city to city, but the differences between Israeli and American cannabis use are pointed and undeniable.
In 2017, a study on Israeli cannabis consumption found that 27% of Israelis between ages 18-65 had partaken in cannabis sometime in the last year. This statistic puts Israel at the highest annual rate of cannabis use, followed by Iceland and the U.S.
Pot Laws Aside, Cannabis Prevails
Yet despite the high percentage of consumers, I found that the pervasive scent of weed was not weed at all, but plectranthus. A few days after learning about the plant, I passed some on a sidewalk and picked a flower. The moment my fingers touched the sticky petals, they were coated with the scent. It is pungent, grassy, herbal, and extremely cannabis-like. It was easy to see how the plant could be turning so many heads and creating confusion.
So why have cities across Israel, from Be’er Sheva to Tel Aviv and beyond, planted a flower with such a provocative aroma? The answer, as it turns out, is the plant’s potential mosquito repelling properties. In a warm climate like Israel’s, mosquito determent is a notable concern and plectranthus neochilus is said to be effective in repelling them. While this has not been backed up by studies, the belief has gained enough incentive for Israeli cities to install the plant beside sidewalks across the country.
The result offers a community where one can never be completely sure if there is a cannabis smoker nearby or some unruly purple flowers. Cannabis smokers are looking left and right wondering who has the goods, and non-smokers are nonplussed as the scent of weed becomes a common fixture on the streets.
By: Rae LLand, Leafly